Deforestation, forest degradation and climate change are threatening the incredible diversity of life in forests. Bamboo and rattan can provide a solution.
20 March 2020 – Bamboo and rattan are common to tropical and subtropical forests around the world. Although they are not trees—bamboo is a grass, and rattan a climbing palm—these plants play a critical role in conserving biodiversity in forests. They are also widespread: recent research conducted by the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, categorised over 1600 identified species of bamboo and 600 species of rattan, covering Africa, Asia and the Americas, as part of a World Checklist.
A source of food and shelter
A huge range of animals, including a number of endangered species, rely on bamboo and rattan for their needs. Most famously, the giant panda in Asia is renowned for its bamboo diet, eating up to 40 kg a day. It’s not the only one: the red panda, mountain gorilla, Indian elephant, South American spectacled bear, ploughshare tortoise and Madagascar bamboo lemur also rely on bamboo as a source of food. Rattan fruits provide nutrition to a number of birds, bats, monkeys, and the Asian sun bear.
As well as feeding animals in the wild, bamboo can be an important source of fodder for a range of livestock, providing inexpensive, year-round feed for cows, chicken and fish. Research conducted by INBAR has shown how a diet of bamboo leaves can provide a nutritious source of feed, and increase cows’ annual milk production, in Ghana and Madagascar.
Important ecosystem services
A 2019 report published by INBAR and CIFOR provides an analysis of bamboo forests’ ecosystem services, which can be more varied and high-impact than grasslands, agricultural land and degraded or planted forests. In particular, the report references bamboo’s importance for providing ‘regulating services’, such as landscape restoration, landslide control, groundwater recharge and water purification, and its ability to support rural livelihoods. These attributes make bamboo an excellent replacement in plantation forestry, or in degraded lands.
Bamboo’s ability to restore degraded land is a particularly important ecosystem service for forests. Its long underground root systems mean that bamboos can bind soil, prevent water run-off and survive even when the biomass above ground is destroyed by fire. In Allahabad, India, an INBAR-supported bamboo project has helped raise the water table by over 15 metres in 10 years, and return a blasted brick-mining area, prone to frequent dust storms, to productive agricultural land. And in Ethiopia, bamboo is one priority species in a large World Bank-funded project to restore the country’s degraded water catchment areas. With more than 30 million hectares of land around the world, bamboo could provide a widespread solution for land degradation in the tropics and subtropics.
A sustainable source of income
As fast-growing, self-regenerating resources, bamboo and rattan can prevent deforestation, and associated biodiversity loss, by providing a renewable timber substitute. Because of their fast growth and higher culm density, bamboo forests can supply more biomass than both natural and planted forests, and have a higher production capacity for food, forage, timber, bioenergy and construction materials. Rattan is also a fast-replenishing plant which can be harvested without destroying trees.
This synergy between biodiversity protection and poverty alleviation was evident in INBAR’s Dutch-Sino-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme, which planted bamboo in the buffer zones of two national parks. As well as providing local communities with a sustainable material for construction and handicrafts, the bamboo also serves to protect the habitat of local mountain gorillas. Communities are now invested in the management of local bamboo resources for biodiversity conservation.
A similar INBAR project is working to revitalise bamboo craftsmanship in Chishui, China. As part of a famous UNESCO World Heritage site, Chishui has strict restrictions in place to preserve its natural environment and protect its resources, including a ban on construction work, hunting and logging. UNESCO and INBAR are working together with Chishui Natural World Heritage Management Bureau on an initiative to support sustainable livelihood activities in Chishui, using fast-growing bamboo as a source of income.
What INBAR does
Bamboo and rattan are critical to biodiversity, but as they are not ‘trees’, they are often excluded from forestry policy.
Since 1997, INBAR has worked to promote the importance of bamboo and rattan for sustainable development, including forestry protection and biodiversity conservation. The results are often far-reaching. In 2010, INBAR worked on a Bamboo Biodiversity Project as part of the EU-China Biodiversity programme, which provided a number of recommendations for how to balance biodiversity conservation and the productivity of bamboo forests, to optimise their ecosystem services. The project was instrumental in the development of China’s national bamboo policy, which is helping to improve the sustainable management of the country’s bamboo forests.
INBAR is currently working to map bamboo distribution across the world, and trains thousands of beneficiaries from across its Member States every year in how to manage these resources better, to ensure a healthy and sustainable supply. Finally, INBAR is an Observer to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, where it advocates for bamboo and rattan’s inclusion in national and regional biodiversity and forest planning.
Established in 1997, the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) is an intergovernmental development organisation that promotes environmentally sustainable development using bamboo and rattan. It is currently made up of 46 Member States. In addition to its Secretariat Headquarters in China, INBAR has five Regional Offices in Cameroon, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Ghana and India.